Love + Our Innate Ability To Heal: How Gabbie Li Uses Nature To Move Through Hours, Days, and Months Of Fighting Lyme Disease
Often times, it's the smallest, most delicate and softly spoken of words that moves us, motivates us - creating a change of perspective within that we cannot explain. What a gift this is, our ability to have our stories impact others in ways we may never know, causing ripples, tides, and eventually waves of change.
Gabbie Li has woven together just this: a creative piece that will have a lasting impact on those who are lucky enough to come across it.
From sketches of plants, landscapes filled with mystery, long hikes to try and grapple with loss, whiskey, sunrises, and a dog named Choo Choo.
From stargazing and jumping out of bed with joy and a seemingly impossible enthusiasm for the world around her, to writhing in pain on the bathroom floor, unable to makes sense of the soul crushing thoughts that run deep in the veins of this disease, Gabbie has held close hope and our innate ability to heal from the inside out.
In three months, she went from living in a world seen only in postcards, to losing it all. But that doesn't mean she isn't in tune, strong, and managing to find a way, many ways, to get through it.
this is her story...
A Journal Entry, By Gabbie Li
I find myself in the isothermal region of North Carolina in a collapsed squat on a mossy rock, sure not to touch the trees, plants, and brush that I rarely find the courage to return to. The chickweed, poison ivy, and mountain flora around me lay heavy from the moisture that continues to blanket the region from the early morning passing of the clouds. I can barely hear myself talking to the plants, chanting a line from a book that had struck me as exactly this place. It’s a place where I feel like I haven’t quite died, yet it is quiet, primal, and dense with moisture and mystery. Frozen in my squat, legs increasingly numb, I talk to and draw the plants because if I don’t, I’m positive I’ll crumble and be lost forever. I came to these mountains to get out of my own head of soul crushing thoughts and it turns out that can sometimes be impossible when it comes to the stronghold that inflammation can have over my brain. I only arrived to this mossy rock by means of a complete breakdown in the middle of no where, screaming for help that took me out of a cabin and led me down a steep path off the side of a switchback road.
This is usually (perhaps unfortunately) how I move forward. I break down, I surrender, and then I can finally listen. Maybe I feel crazy and have worn out my voice screaming for things and people that aren’t there but at least outside I can breath again. And then for a moment, I feel like myself. I feel like I’m eight again in Salem, Massachusetts, happily alone on the bank of a stream that runs into the harbor making pictures with flowers in the dirt and inhaling the smell of low tide. The moment passes and jolts me back to what feels like a half eaten body striving every second to survive this disease. I’m able to fill a page in my moleskin with sketches of the plants that helped me pass two hours of being alive with Lyme disease. I’m not sure I can get out of this squat.
I have no idea what time it is but my boyfriend Steve returns from work and eventually finds me by the nose of his chocolate lab. He sits with me on that rock, asks to see my sketches, and later tells me that night that I need to see myself again as he and the outside world does, stunning and full of beauty. He believes this even though he knew me only two months before I contracted Lyme and the world shrank around my bedroom walls. He says I’m still an artist, even though I’ve lost my ability to create the work I used to. He tells me we will beat this together. Sometimes it’s hard to even remember what I’m working for because I’m barely a part of life anymore, (usually submerged in an eternal bath of Epsom salts) but his words nonetheless save my life that night. I wonder what he sees when he has to carry my writhing body to the bathroom and hold me steady on the toilet. He offers his clothes as tissues and towels, and his body as something to grasp on to when I need to travel in pain, my legs dragging on the floor, him telling me "I’m here" and "I got you" with every step. In these moments I feel his smell and his breath are my only attachments.
It’s hard to look yourself in the eyes in the mirror when you’re twenty-five pounds underweight and your muscles no longer hold your bones in place. This time last year I wasn’t able to walk, draw, or read, but the free falls my body and mind take on the road to recovery always seem insurmountable, until myself or someone pulls me out. I think the hardest parts may be teetering on that border of sickness and health. You have time and the cognition to process where you are and where you aren't. I can’t tell you why I could fearlessly walk (and without assistance) the streets of Brooklyn last October, able to proudly stand next to my boyfriend and his beautiful family and repeat in my head that healing happens. Yet here I am again feeling like I’m losing the left side of my body yet I also bearing the weight of one thousand pounds.
I’m still healing at my mother’s in Durham, North Carolina, the city where I became infected during a five-hour hike along the Eno River to cope with the recent loss loss of a dear old friend. That day, after getting completely lost and dehydrated on neglected trails, I found about 50 nymph ticks on my body, half of which were attached. It was a week before I would move myself to Hartland, Vermont in my car, with a couple cubic feet in the back seat loyally reserved for my dog Choo Choo.
The next three months is a time I’m not sure is helpful to recall. It was too perfect. Those three months in Vermont was where I had always pictured myself. Free to roam the landscapes with my dog and a jar of coffee and cream from the cows down the road. Free to wake up at 4am and stargaze, locate the planets, and anticipate the blood moon on the twenty-seven acres of land I got to call home. I would jump out of bed with joy, hours until I’d see the sun, before my 6am start at Simon Pearce Glass. Every morning. I was strong, the only female glassblower in an industrial factory of some of the most hardworking individuals that never took themselves seriously despite their unending talent. I was happy and living in a postcard despite the pain that was slowly creeping in. I was certainly happy.
Maybe it wasn’t perfect. At work, I would wince every time I would take a gather of glass as I felt my shoulders and elbows slowly breaking down with every glass vessel I could possibly produce. Every time I stood in front of the 2300 degree glass furnace I thought the harder I worked, the faster I would be rewarded, the faster I would heal, and how sweet it would be to look back at what I had accomplished in that factory. It was the purpose of sacrificing myself to glass and continued learning that kept me there, until I couldn’t walk on my own nor bend my elbows.
My boyfriend, a fairly new friend at the time, made three trips by plane, bus, and car with a broken foot in a cast in the short time I was there. The first visit, (before he broke his foot) we hiked up the cross-country trails that surrounded the homestead I lived on to a place called Hoisington farm. This place is magic. It feels like you’re sitting above the earth, at peace, looking down on drops of gold that comb the fields while the sheeps baah and Choo Choo swims in a gully of grass and the sun sets on a farmer’s full day of work, the green mountains dancing in the background. It makes you want to touch the painting. But I wasn’t touching it, I was in it. I could not believe how I had gotten myself here and how I could call it mine and start every day at the edge of those woods overlooking that paradise. I would never have a bad day. My dog and I were completely free.
Steve and I finished a bottle of red wine and hiked back down to my apartment in the dusk. That night I woke up in the middle of the night, my face wet with pain, certain my elbows were breaking with cruel minds of their own. Steve kept his forehead to mine, cancelled his small passenger plane out of Lebanon, NH and drove me back to my home state of Massachusetts to an urgent care. The next day I found myself scalping a ticket on Brookline Avenue and drinking the pain away with nine dollar beers in Fenway Park with braces on my elbows. At least the Sox beat the Yankees that afternoon. I later laid in Steve’s uncle’s guest room, barely able to move, more tired than I had ever been in my life. I returned to work and continued to degrade. In three months I lost my postcard and everything that went with it.
Prior to moving to Vermont, Steve and I had backpacked the Bartram trail in Western North Carolina. We went twenty-one miles without seeing a soul, whiskey and water on our backs and our dogs scaling the ridge-lines, panting circles around us. The rhododendrons blanket those mountains like ground cover giants. The sunsets made me feel like I was wandering in Jurassic park. I was twenty-four and my dog and I found our best friends. I floated up and down those trails. These days, sometimes I have to be escorted to the bathroom, but Steve makes lying in bed next to me seem equally exciting and productive.
I’ve filled my room with plants because they’re growing and moving forward in time even when it feels like groundhog day. I feel comforted when Choo Choo sits on me until I stop sobbing. I can tell he’s not just here to just beg for breakfast and dinner. I always tell Choo Choo that one day I will be able to walk him again. For now, he assumes his position by my side as a staunch potato. What a good boy.
It of course continues from there, and believe me, I am no stranger to the path it takes to get from A to B in the jungle that is Lyme disease. Honestly, I feel as if A and B do not exist, but a web that I will break free from at some point. Sure, it’s a special kind of hell wedged in between sickness and potential health. Most of it I don’t want to remember, especially the doctors that seem to go to work to be right rather than to heal the sick and the nights spent on the bathroom floor blanketed in darkness. What I do remember is how potent and life-altering love, of all kinds, can have on our will to fight and our innate ability to heal.
I’ve flown across the country to aggressively treat this disease, yet I find the best feelings in the small offices of local healers and the day to day assurance of my family by my side. I feel grounded when I’m surrounded by four teal walls, a water feature, and a jar of mugwort on the apothecary table and needles in my back. I feel worthy when my chiropractor sees me on her days off, curses this disease and tells me the body knows how to heal, and it remembers what its like to be healthy. I can release the guilt of sickness when I know my body is working hard for me. I feel at ease laying on a bed of rocks in the Eno River as the water rushes over me. I am in tune, I am strong, and I am getting through it. Right now, these people, creatures, and places are my lifelines. I will tear that Bartram trail apart again some day, and I am sure I will be floating even higher than last.